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India’s modernity onslaught

There's been a lot of discussion about how north and south India are like two different countries now. They've always been culturally and linguistically different. But now the stark poverty is not so visible in the south, except in a few interior pockets. In the north, its visible everywhere, staring you in the face. You can’t pretend it’s not there.

Last week I was on the road for almost a week, driving north from Tamil Nadu to Jabalpur, 1400 kilometres away in the heart of India. Road travel gives you a completely different perspective and we could see the changes, which were dramatic. There's the poverty of course. But there are other aspects, the fascinating face of primeval, rural India. The time was just right too. It was the start of the monsoon.

At one point we stepped out into the blistering noonday heat, very Kipling-esque, to eat lunch in a dhaba. We sat there waiting for our food, stifled by the dry oppressive heat and then suddenly like magic the rain came down. Sheets of torrential monsoon rain. That first rain has had poets wax lyrical in all Indian languages since time immemorial. It’s captured beautifully in a superb Hindi movie, Lagaan. The Brits run for shelter while the Indians run out into the rain dancing with pure undiluted joy.

It marks the end of the dreaded summer season. Everyone stopped what they were doing, exhausted, heat-seared truckers, beggars, the cooks and the owners, dhaba customers, all.  For those few magical moments we stood there united, enchanted by the first monsoon shower. The temperatures dropped dramatically. All was right with the world again for a little while.

The spectacle of small farmers ploughing their little plots with hand held ploughs, or manually driving a pair of bullocks, creating perfect furrows while behind them women hand-dribbled maize seed, presented an archetypal picture, like some ancient painting. I predict all this will go in a few decades, as it’s mostly gone in South India. Tractors have taken over, Monsanto and other large seed companies are slowly capturing the agricultural scene in India and Africa. There’s charm in a rustic lifestyle that a handful of city people are trying to destroy, globally.

But, here in India, television depicts rustic people as backward, primitive and a section of society to be laughed at for their quaint, uncouth ways. Somewhat like the American hillbilly comics of the sixties. With television everyone wants to be like a Bollywood hero. Flash, overdressed and city-slick is the image India’s new rich aspire to.

We saw one enterprising young farmer who’d fitted his plough to a bicycle. Another told us that the reason agriculture was failing was because farmers were not ploughing their loans into their fields but into conspicuous spending like bigger-than-they-could afford weddings. Farmers suicides are a huge scandal here, but that’s another story.

There’s something about newly ploughed fields, the smell of new rain, the freshly watered rejuvenated soil, which produces that unforgettable earth aroma that fills your senses and is balm to the soul.

As you rush past, it makes you stop and think about life. About where we are headed as we appear to throw out the old so completely and remorselessly. You can’t stop the onslaught of modernity. And yet, a line from a sixties song goes on relentlessly in my brain. ‘When will they ever learn? When will they ever learn?’

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